The self-proclaimed Mexican Elvis, El Vez, is much more than just an impersonator doing rewrites of the King’s most popular songs in Spanish. The performer behind “You Ain’t Nothing But a Chihuahua,” his take on “Hound Dog,” also teaches Mexican-American history with the backing of a fiery rock band on numbers including “Cesar Chavez ’96” and comes on like a savvier, more politically minded “Weird Al” Yankovic on sly remakes of pop songs like his version of Wall of Voodoo’s 1982 hit “Mexican Radio.”
One of his best covers is a version of the classic rock band Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” with new lyrics reflecting the experiences of Mexican-American workers. The re-jiggered chorus includes the lines “Taking care of business/ We are the maid/ Taking care of business/ and getting underpaid” over beefy riffs.
There’s also another facet to El Vez’s repertoire, which is a series of songs that are like jigsaw puzzles. When El Vez does John Lennon’s “Power to the People,” he implants the lyrics onto a rockabilly version of Queen’s “A Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” sounds truly ominous when El Vez sings the song’s lyrics over Link Wray’s atmospheric instrumental “Rumble.”
“It’s a way to play all my favorite songs at the same time,” says El Vez, whose real name is Robert Lopez.
Before transforming himself into El Vez 20 years ago, Lopez had already been a fixture in the Los Angeles punk scene. He was a member of Catholic Discipline along with the lesbian folk singer Phranc and was the guitarist for the Zeros, a band some people refer to as “the Mexican Ramones.”
From his current home in Seattle, Lopez recalls that the seeds of El Vez were sown while he was running a Los Angeles pop and folk art gallery called La Luz De Jesus. The gallery hosted a show of pieces inspired by Elvis and hired an Elvis impersonator for the show’s opening night.
“I could do that,” Lopez says he was thinking after the performance. “I could be El Vez, the Mexican Elvis.”
A friend of Lopez’s then told him about Elvis International Tribute Week, a series of events including an Elvis impersonator contest that occurs at Graceland every year to commemorate Presley’s death. Lopez decided to give it a shot and flew out to Memphis to compete in the impersonator contest.
At a Memphis venue called Bad Bob’s Vapors Club, Lopez unveiled the El Vez persona and played revamped versions of Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog” and “That’s All Right, Mama.” The new takes were titled “Huareches Azules,” “You Ain’t Nothing but a Chihuahua” and “Esta Bien, Mamecita.” When he returned to his home, at the time in Los Angeles, Lopez was surprised to see a blurb about his performance in The Los Angeles Times.
After reading the piece, Lopez realized he was onto something. Over the years, he has released a holiday album called Merry Mex-Mas, which includes songs like “Poncho Claus” and “Santa Claus is Sometimes Brown,” and several CDs that are a play on pop music.
While Lopez’s recorded material is both clever and rocking, El Vez is most widely respected for his raucous live performances. Onstage, El Vez tears through more than a half dozen costumes and is backed by a group of female backup singers called the El Vettes. “The live show is very Vegasy,” Lopez says.
El Vez’s upcoming performance at CSUMB’s World Theater this Thursday night is being billed as an “El Vez for Prez” show.
“El Vez is once again running for president,” Lopez says, and that the concert will be like a debate where El Vez takes questions from the audience.
Lopez describes El Vez as being similar to Cesar Chavez, if the late labor leader had his own punk band. “I am very pessimistic in real life,” he says. “Overall, El Vez is more optimistic. He believes in the power of the people.”
EL VEZ performs 7:30pm Thursday, May 8, at CSUMB’s World Theater, Sixth Avenue, Seaside. $25/general public; $22/seniors and military; $10/CSUMB students. 582-4000.